By DAMIAN MANN
Fire crews poured into the Illinois Valley from around the country Sunday to tackle what could be one of the worst fire seasons in the past 10 years in Southern Oregon.
A massive camp at Lake Selmac near Selma is being set up to help tamp down the 700-acre Labrador Complex burning west of the Illinois River near the rugged Oak Flat area on Bureau of Land Management land.
About 200 firefighters arrived from California, Texas, Oklahoma and other areas of the country.
The lightning-caused blazes started Thursday and are burning in the area of the 2002 Biscuit fire, the largest fire in a half-century in Oregon that blackened nearly a half-million acres.
“The conditions in the forest are so dry it’s like Aug. 28 instead of July 28,” said Howard Hunter, spokesman for the fire operation at Lake Selmac.
Though residents in Cave Junction and Selma are anxious about the smoke, the fire is still some distance away, Hunter said.
Smoke has been so thick that fire crews are trying to determine the best method of attack, analyzing terrain, vegetation and emergency routes for ground crews.
Hunter said the fire will not be contained through direct attacks because of the steep terrain. Instead, fire analysts are trying to map out areas to limit the growth of the blaze and prevent it from advancing on homes.
“There is no estimate for a containment date,” Hunter said. “There is not any opportunity for direct engagement.”
Hunter said the thick smoke and a heavy inversion layer have made fire analysis difficult and potentially dangerous if firefighters attempted to confront the blaze directly.
On Sunday, semi-trailers of equipment rolled onto the camp next to the lake. Dozens of fire hoses were neatly stacked and wrapped in plastic. Port-a-potties lined up along a field, and showers had already been installed. A mess hall was being set up to feed the hungry firefighters. Scores of tents filled the field as firefighters, including some from Grayback Forestry Inc., slept during the day but will awaken for the night shift.
Marie Parker, a firefighter from the Davy Crockett National Forest in Texas, said she just arrived yesterday and hasn’t been out on the fire line yet.
“Ashes were just falling on us yesterday,” the 33-year-old said.
When fire crews are sent in, analysts will make careful preparations to have exit strategies mapped out in advance. Also, the crews are updated constantly on wind conditions, temperatures and the overall behavior of the fire — precautions all the more important after the tragedy that led to the death of 19 firefighters battling the Yarnell wildfire near Prescott, Ariz., on June 30.
“I’m a little more nervous after what happened,” Parker said. “You just try to keep going.”
Another Texas firefighter, 30-year-old Earlene Bracy, said she’s worked in Oregon before, saying she’s used to battling blazes alongside the guys.
“As a female, you have to pull your own weight,” she said. “It is harder because you’re not built like a guy. You just roll with it.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.